Peter, Kora and Eun beat Blake and his cronies time and again, honing their teamwork by leaps and bounds. Blake’s guys used the same moves (said the same words, even) but Peter and his friends were constantly refining, constantly evolving. Soon, they were able to act as a single, unified consciousness.
Four weeks in, the attacks stopped. Peter and Kora were initially puzzled, but it all made sense when Eun explained it.
“Dissona’s evolving,” she said as Kora rummaged through her locker.
“How can that be?” Peter demanded. “Didn’t you say she that she couldn’t stand change?”
“It’s not a choice,” Eun elaborated. “As much as she yearns for permanent stasis, existence won’t tolerate it. We can reliably beat the ass off her goons, so she’s decided to bench them and save them for later. She’s trying to strategize.”
Kora grunted, shoving a stack of books into the upper cabinet of her locker. “Unfortunately for her, it won’t accelerate her demonic ascendance. From an arcane perspective, she’s already injected a fixed amount of energy into her minions. There’s a kind of…” she struggled to find the right words. “There’s a kind of pact you commit to when you use that style of magic.”
“Like a 401k,” Peter said. “You get penalized for withdrawing before a certain date. You have to let your money sit and grow.”
“Mm hm.” Kora nodded. “Exactly.”
“Can we shift focus?” Peter asked. “Now that Blake’s leaving us be, we can ease up on the go-team-go stuff, right?”
“Sure.” Eun shrugged.
“Yes!” Peter pumped his fist. “I was getting tired of all those post-battle debriefs.”
“I was enjoying them.” Kora sighed wistfully.
“We’ve got two months left until prom,” Peter said. “What do we do to fill the time?”
“Back to the basics,” Eun said. “Prep our stuff, keep an eye out…that kind of thing.”
“Great,” Peter smacked a fist into an open palm. “I’ve got a big-ass list of things to get ready.”
Kora raised a finger. “A word of advice. I’ve been through a lot of these—you know, gear up, make plans, put on your game face…people tend to forget one thing, over and over without fail. And it’s super important.” She regarded her friends with a weighted look.
“What?” Peter prompted.
“Try and have fun,” Kora said.
“Destination, not the journey, right?”
This, of course, came from Eun.
While the three teen-heroes spent a month fighting Blake, Holly had spent an entire decade trekking across the Territories.
Ten years ago, she’d found a way to kill the spider-beasts. It had taken six months to hone her magic to where she could do it reliably. During that time, she’d had to take shelter within a cave, feasting on the pallid insects that roamed its depths. They tasted pungent and cloying, but they’d kept her alive. Once she could defend herself, she’d struck out across the Territories, not just eating them, but fashioning armor from their gleaming carapace. She was now clad in a rough patchwork of chitinous shell.
Ten years of roaming the Territories. Ten years of monotony and drudgery.
She couldn’t confirm it, but she suspected that her will to live had pushed her magic to new heights. When she’d been training under Estilian, she’d experienced long days of teeth-grinding frustration, but when he’d threatened her life, she’d risen to the occasion and cut him down. And then later, when she’d been driven into the cave by the gnashing spider-beasts, the prospect of death had allowed her to master Senkilo’s Cannon.
Other spells had followed. She could wield something akin to a laser whip; it cut her enemies’ forelegs and thoraxes into bleeding chunks. She’d also mastered basic telekinesis. She could grapple with her assailants using her mind alone, disrupting their momentum and lining them up for devastating combos.
At this point she could now be considered an accomplished mage, but a sinister threat had reared its head: the Territories’ magic was warping her mind.
Either that or it was warping reality.
A journey through the Territories took six months, maybe seven months tops. But she’d been stuck in the wasteland for over a decade. She’d followed the Raging Centaur (a constellation whose bottom-most star pointed to the south) with unwavering diligence, so she couldn’t be circling or straying off course.
That wasn’t all. One year ago, the spider-beasts had begun to wear her face.
Now, their thoraxes were topped by a blonde-haired head. She’d destroy her pursuers with eldritch weaponry, littering the desert with leaking body parts, but she couldn’t bring herself to attack their heads. Back when they’d been blank-eyed insects, she’d gone for the skull every time—damaging their brains was the easiest way to cut them down. But after they’d stolen her face (hence her new name for them: face-stealers) she couldn’t bring herself to go for their noggins. She found other ways; she would slice their limbs out from under their bodies, then target their torsos with a heavy blast.
A trail of their heads marked her passage, dotting the Territories with countless variations of her decapitated visage. A lot looked angry, some looked sad, but most just stared blankly ahead. As she sawed the meat out from beneath their chitin, she would keep her eyes on her grisly task, staunchly ignoring her macabre reflections.
Holly was surrounded by reminders of herself, yet she refused to acknowledge them.
Her muscles became gnarled and ropy, her skin turned dry and spotted. Her hair—now a long, gray-white veil—cast a constant shadow across her features. During her fifteenth year in this brutal perdition, she began to wonder if she’d lost her mind.
Had she ever been a cheerleader, or was that just a dream? It seemed absurd that she existed at all. Her only realities were this endless trek and her relentless pursuers. The entirety of her world had been reduced to her meaningless quest, the unfeeling sun, and eternal combat.
Was she in Hell? She didn’t know.
All she knew was she had to keep going. So she kept pushing through an alien nightmare, surrounded by the one thing that was most familiar to her:
Her own image.